By NANETTE LoBIONDO GALLOWAY
VENTNOR – Not so fast, Superior Court Assignment Judge Michael J. Blee said in a Nov. 29 open letter to municipalities planning to leave the Atlantic County Central Municipal Court System after the New Year.
Blee said he has reviewed documentation from Ventnor, Brigantine, Hamilton Township and Northfield requesting their exits from the county court system in favor of joining existing or forming local consolidated courts. According to the law that allowed the formation of the county court system, the assignment judge is required to grant the approval to leave or to create a new joint court.
“I find that it is in the best interest of this Vicinage to maintain the status quo and not permit the withdrawal from the Central Municipal Court,” he wrote in the Nov. 29 letter.
Blee cited pending state legislation introduced by NJ Sen. Vince Polistina (LD-2) that could change where State Police cases are heard; Atlantic County’s assurance of budget stability, overall financial considerations, and lack of adequate staffing models; and a lack of social services for court users under the proposed withdrawals.
“We are disappointed,” Ventnor Mayor Lance Landgraf said Wednesday. “It’s not something we wanted to stay with, because it’s not working for us.”
Landgraf cited a backlog of cases that required the city’s Code Enforcement Officer to be in court to testify in 72 cases in one afternoon, and a prosecutor dismissed a case without notifying the Ventnor Police Department, he said.
“We were told when we got in that we could get out with notice and now we can’t,” he said. “We advised them, giving six months’ notice that we wanted to leave, and now they are saying we can’t leave. That’s not what we signed up for.”
Landgraf said former Mayor Beth Holtzman was all for joining the Atlantic County Municipal Court because it would save on the cost of salaries and free up space in City Hall, which the city is now using for the Finance Department. Municipal officials say revenue generated by the court has fallen short of projections.
The Atlantic County Central Municipal Court was the first of its kind in New Jersey. It became operational in January 2022 with nine Atlantic County municipalities participating. Margate and Longport chose to form a joint court in Margate, and Ventnor was one of the first to join the county. Since then, other towns have left the Central Court increasing costs for the remaining municipalities.
Ventnor paid $282,428 to the county court last year. There were savings for the city when it switched to the county system, but the proposed agreement with Brigantine has Ventnor paying $260,000 for the first year.
The original pilot agreement that created the state’s first central court system called for State Police complaints to be heard in the central court, regardless of where those cases originated. Levinson called it a “glaring anomaly” that burdened the collaboration.
Polistina’s bill, S-4040, proposes territorial jurisdictions for all cases, including those generated by the NJ State Police. Currently, cases generated by the State Police are heard in the Central Court, the costs of which are being shared by central court member municipalities that have their own police departments.
The bill clarifies that regional municipal courts will no longer be required to hear State Police or county police cases originating from outside the participating municipalities.
The bill was heard before the NJ Senate Judiciary Committee Thursday, which voted 11-0 to send it to the Budget and Appropriations Committee. If it clears the committee, it will go to the full Senate for a vote, hopefully, before the end of this year’s session, which ends Jan. 8, 2024.
“In all likelihood, the proposed legislation will not be considered by the Legislature until the first six months of 2024. To this end, I can make a more informed decision on the pending resolutions after a final determination on the proposed legislation,” Blee wrote.
The bipartisan bill was co-sponsored by Joseph A. Lagana (LD-38).
If the Legislature approves it, there will be “equity” Atlantic County Executive Dennis Levinson said.
“We are inundated with State Police cases. We’re still saving towns money, but not as much as we could,” he said. “If it passes, it will be a horse of a different color and will bring about fairness.”
Levinson said he advocated creating the central court system as a way to save taxpayer dollars and provide services to charged individuals who have mental health problems or are in the throes of alcohol or drug addiction.
“It’s the right thing to do to help them become productive citizens,” and avoid recidivism, Levinson said.
Blee said the social services provided by the Central Municipal Court are “unparalleled,” and “include a very comprehensive plan dedicated to social services (mental health, drug addition, homelessness) that the proposed joint municipal courts cannot match.”
Blee said such services should be “of primary import to court users in need of assistance.”
The joint court formed by Atlantic City and Pleasantville, which Blee approved for 2024, will provide services such as mental health counseling, substance abuse treatment and housing assistance.
He said the court’s opinion is not just revenue driven, but he must also consider if the additions to the Hammonton court and the proposed Ventnor-Brigantine court can provide comparable social services.
Hamilton and Northfield are asking to end their relationship with the central court in favor of joining the joint court in Hammonton. Ventnor and Brigantine want to withdraw and form their own court in Brigantine.
Hammonton’s court includes Egg Harbor City and Mullica Township, which have their own police departments, along with Buena Vista Township and Folsom, which do not have their own law enforcement agencies and receive rural police protection provided by the NJ State Police.
Copyright Mediawize, LLC 2023